White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan announced a new effort on Wednesday to give the United States a surgeon’s precision in the fight against terrorism by focusing more directly on Al Qaeda. The new National Strategy for Counterterrorism, when coupled with President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan drawdown speech last week, represents the end of the era of resource-intensive counterinsurgency strategy as a means to fight terrorism. The new counterterrorism strategy aims to address the evolving threat of a decentralized Al Qaeda through smaller, discreet operations, and recognizes the need to provide nonmilitary assistance to civilians in the most vulnerable areas exploited by terrorists. We applaud this new approach as a step in the right direction but recognize it comes with new dangers.
Counterinsurgency has proven costly and ineffective in battling terrorists. A new study finds that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost between $3.2 trillion and $4 trillion at a time when Congress is looking to slash vital domestic programs. Worse, the human costs of the wars exceed 6,000 U.S. soldiers killed and 40,000 wounded both physically and mentally. The number of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of the war is, by “very conservative estimates,” over 132,000.
These expensive endeavors actually played into Osama bin Laden’s strategy of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” In contrast, the mission that killed bin Laden was undertaken by a mere two dozen soldiers at a tiny fraction of the price.
Al Qaeda and its allied terrorist groups have adapted their tactics since their ouster from Afghanistan. They are using a less centralized network of smaller regional affiliates to carry the terrorist cause across the globe. This international Al-Qaeda-inspired network has groups based in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Algeria with smaller cells across the Middle East, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.
Resource-intensive counterinsurgency operations are a poor match for such a diffuse array of terrorist groups. Some possess the capability to attack the United States and others perhaps only the intent. The administration’s new counterterrorism strategy recognizes this new reality.
But just as massive ground invasions produced serious blowback, we cannot ignore the potential for similar reactions to elements of this new strategy. The greater reliance on more surgical strikes, for example, has become synonymous with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. According to U.S. officials, the drone campaign in Pakistan has yielded significant tactical advantages in eliminating terrorist leaders and generally putting terrorist groups under great stress. What is equally true, however, is that the drones are extremely unpopular with local populations and can be a driver of recruitment into terrorist or extremist groups. In fact, Faisal Shazaad reportedly claimed he was motivated to try to detonate a bomb in Times Square last May because of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan.
This is why reports that the United States is now increasing the use of drones in Yemen and Somalia give us pause. It’s not that drones are ineffective or shouldn’t be used, but merely that it would be a mistake to allow the only U.S. footprint in those areas to be drones. This essentially replaces ground invasion with death from above.
The rebalancing possible under a strategy that rejects counterinsurgency should free up some resources to invest in the progress of these at-risk countries. The United States can meaningfully improve security for people in Yemen with a few million dollars of investment and be much more effective than a trillion-dollar invasion and counterinsurgency operation in a country like Iraq.
The point is that there are military and nonmilitary means to combat terrorism that do not involve such a large presence of U.S. soldiers and are much more effective than massive ground invasions. By reducing our large military presence and replacing it with a more deliberate, targeted strategy, we can cut off the oxygen that fuels terrorist groups. In such a delicate time in the Middle East, we have the opportunity to alter our efforts in the most vulnerable areas of the world, turn the tide against anti-American sentiment, and redefine our role in the region. Further, our renewed and expanded nonmilitary efforts can help secure civilian populations and develop regional networks to combat terrorism wherever it appears.
We must be vigilant but pragmatic against the dynamic terrorist threat. The strategic shift away from massive military operations represents a good first step.
Ken Gude is the Managing Director for National Security, Ken Sofer is the Special Assistant, and Aaron Gurley is an intern at American Progress.